Paula J. Caplan Ph.D.

Science Isn't Golden

Psychology Today Blogs and Comments: Free Speech, Hate Speech, and Misuses of Science

Encouraging debate while respecting science and avoiding oppression

Posted May 22, 2011

©Copyright 2011 Paula J. Caplan All rights reserved

Encouraging debate while respecting science and avoiding oppression

Recently, Psychology Today editors removed from their site a blog essay (not written by me) I won't even dignify by naming it, but it was about Black women, and the debate about whether or not this is infringement of the First Amendment has been raging.

It's hard to be a writer and not be an ardent advocate of freedom of speech, so my first thought was that, however terrible that other blogger's post might have been, the editors were wrong to remove it. At that point, I had not seen the post in question. But then a big "however" came up for me, quite coincidentally, as a result of a post that I wrote about homophobia. Ironically, I wrote my essay about homophobia because May 17 was International Day Against Homophobia, and I planned to post it that day. But when I tried to post it, the squirrelly things were happening on the PT site, and the essay would not stick. Later, I learned that that was because of the crashing of the site as a result of that other person's essay.

When I did manage to post "Overcoming Homophobia: Progress Despite the Rocky Road," many comments on it rapidly appeared. Readers may not be aware that, unlike on some websites, bloggers for PT do not see the comments or have a chance to delete them before they appear on the site. But Psychology Today's site offers bloggers the mechanism for deleting a comment on our own blog that is "spam or unsolicited advertising"; has "obscene, violent or profane content"; has "low-quality content or writing"; and or has "unwanted, taunting, or off-topic content."

Some comments about my homophobia essay seemed clearly to be hate speech, and I have no problem simply deleting hate speech. But by the time I had a chance to read those comments, responses to the hate speech appeared in further comments, and they drew further attention to the hate speech.

Once I saw the post about Black women, I had to stop and think carefully about why I agreed with the editors' decision to delete it and how I felt about some of the comments about my homophobia post. I realized that I need to come up with a policy of my own and decided to inform readers about it.

The post about Black women was of a kind I have often seen in my work about both research methodology [1] and about sexism and racism: It was characterized by both of these "isms" as well as by careless and irresponsible misrepresentation of research as though it proved what the writer wanted readers to believe. It's one thing when carefully-conceived, thoughtfully-designed, well-conducted, and responsibly-interpreted studies are cited - and when the person doing the citation has considered the quality of the studies and raised crucial questions about what they show. Then, if we are disappointed or upset by what they seem to reveal, we nevertheless need to deal with whatever those studies apparently teach us. But when either good science is distorted in the reporting or when bad science is uncritically cited to support any conclusion and especially a conclusion that is hate-filled and creates a hostile environment that suppresses debate, to let such work stand is to help perpetuate the misuse of good science, junk science, and/or false claims that lead easily to actual harm.

Even so, you might argue, for the editors to remove that post, no matter how terrible it is, is surely infringement of the First Amendment. Not so, for the First Amendment prohibits governments from infringing on free speech, whereas it does not cover such entities as profit-making ventures (Psychology Today is one), magazines, websites, and individuals who limit the speech of others, according to Maryam Ahranjani, Associate Director of the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project at Washington College of Law, American University. But even governments can censor speech when it constitutes hate speech.

A retired judge who consults on legal matters tells me that, "even in the notorious soldier funeral case," those holding up signs at the funeral marked with "God kills American soldiers for tolerating queers" were "on public ground adjoining the cemetery. Had they been on private ground, they could have been removed."

The argument could then be raised that for the PT editors to remove the essay as they did and for me to remove hate speech from my blog might not infringe on freedom of speech but surely infringes on academic freedom. When I thought about that, I began to consider what I have done as a teacher in both Canada and the U.S., with both graduate and undergraduate students, and it struck me that my view of what I do as a blogger is similar - and I want it to be similar - to my role as a teacher. That is, in class, I try to prevent hate speech from being uttered by setting guidelines in advance and to interrupt hate speech when someone begins to utter it anyway.

In classrooms and in workplaces, notes attorney Wendy Murphy, who teaches at New England Law/Boston and specializes in anti-harassment law, speech that rises to the level of harassment is considered hate speech and is illegal. The purpose of my blog and of academic freedom is to educate through the exchange of ideas - even if they are offensive - in a place that is fundamentally about the "workplace" of psychological care and the understanding of human behavior. Says Murphy, "Speech that subjugates through harassment is not productive, inhibits and silences speech, and thus is unprotected in a learning environment." She explains that the concept of hostile environment harassment "refers to speech that interferes with one's ability to learn in an equal education environment. Even if no gay person is a recipient of harassing language, a non-gay person can feel harassed by the effects of such speech on their learning environment."

Some people decry such statements as being overly protective of unwarrantedly sensitive people who darned well ought to be tough enough to deal with a hostile environment. However, my preference is to make the classroom or blog site as open to as many legitimate debaters and learners as possible, and I take the responsibility for keeping the environment of this blog free from harassment in order to promote real debate in contrast to harassment and hate speech.

Research such as the work about stereotype threat by Claude Steele and his colleagues, [2] as well as the marvelous, clearly-written book, Words and Women by Casey Miller and Kate Swift, [3] includes extensive documentation of the actual harm (such as altering thinking, interfering with test performance, etc.) done by hate speech. Yet the term "political correctness" quickly went from a reference to showing respect for what people in different groups prefer to be called and avoiding offensive, demeaning terms to an epithet that people will do backflips to avoid being accused of. Using that term in a negative way has become a fast and cheap method to try to silence people with concerns about the use of science in oppressive, harmful ways. In some of the comments on my blog, it seemed that my very mention of words like "homophobia" elicited the knee-jerk description of me as trying to be politically correct. What is fascinating to me is that people who use that term pejoratively usually hold the very (oppressive) views about which I am writing, and name-calling (however one feels about "political correctness" as a term) is not a convincing way to argue that the oppression is justified.

It's probably clear from essays I have posted here and from my other writings that I deplore hate speech, but unlike one intelligent commenter, I do not believe that it is possible to deal adequately in my comment with those who speak or write it, and my own view is that allowing their comments to remain on my blog causes more hurt and harm than other commenters and/or I can possibly undo. I simply do not want my blog to be a vehicle for such hatred and creation of a hostile environment. I invite others to write about it in comments here. But purveying it will not be allowed to stand. Those whose messages I remove have the option of creating their own websites, and there are places on the internet where anyone can do so at no charge.

IF you write a comment that seems to have been deleted by mistake, please write to tell me so that I can see if it was a glitch in the system that led to the deletion, as happened with one or more comments recently.

Although I strongly believe in the importance of sincere dialogue and open debate, people often assume that cannot be the case, saying such things as, "Since you are a feminist and taught at Harvard, you must have just hated it when President Larry Summers said that women are innately inferior to men at doing math and science." Had Summers posted such a claim on my blog, I would have let it stand and said that unfortunately, it seemed that he was basing his claim on work that had been discredited a long time before. In fact, because he publicly apologized for what he said, did so several times, rapidly established two committees he charged with quickly coming up with actions to improve the status of women faculty and women in math and science at Harvard, and then put an enormous amount of money behind their recommendations that made the actions possible, I wrote to tell him that I had found his original assertion objectionable but was delighted with what he had done afterward. I thought that in many ways, what he did was the best thing that ever happened at Harvard. (Please don't ask me what I think about other things he did at Harvard or about his economic policies.) The matter at hand here is that openness to critical thinking and to the effects of unfounded claims can be illuminating and effective, as Summers showed.

[1] Paula J. Caplan & Jeremy B. Caplan. (2009). Thinking Critically About Research on Sex and Gender. Allyn & Bacon.
[2] For instance, see Steele, C.M. (1997). A threat in the air. American Psychologist 52, 613-29, and Steele, C., M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African-Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69, 797-811.
[3] Casey Miller & Kate Swift. (1976). Words and Women.